In Search of the ‘Golden Sound’

In Search of the ‘Golden Sound’

The Grail is light and sound – the sound of the light and the light of the inaudible sound of origin. It is the place where time becomes space …

… and where it is possible to listen to the harmony of the spheres with the ‘third ear’.

(A phonosophical fragment [1])

The Grail is the place where time becomes space and where it is possible to listen with the ‘third ear’ to the harmony of the spheres. The search for the Grail is the search for the heart of sound, for the sound of emptiness: a sound of uncreated light: the ‘light-sound’, the ‘golden sound’…

In a passage from Act 1 of Richard Wagner’s last musical drama, Gurnemanz asks Parsifal who gave him the bow with which he killed the swan. Parsifal replied that he made it himself “to scare the wild eagles from the forest”. To this Gurnemanz said: “But noble you seem yourself and high-born”. Here Wagner makes a highly symbolic play on words that might at first be overlooked: A tonal relationship is established between ‘eagle’ and ‘noble’ (in German: ‘Adler’ and ‘adlig’). The eagle symbolises the royal and the solar; the eagle can look directly into the sun, the source of light, the truth. The owl, on the other hand, is a night bird, the bird of Athena, the goddess born from the head of Zeus. Rationality, the brain, is an instrument with a lunar quality, an organ that – like the moon – radiates no warmth of its own despite its dazzling functionality. To generate living thought, the brain must reflect the light of the heart. It is no coincidence that repetitive forms of prayer and meditation are found in various mystical traditions: the mantra yoga in the Vedas and among the Hindus, the dhikr among the Sufis, the practice of nembutsu in Amitabha Buddhism. Through the repetition of formulas, one tries to bring the head into sync with the heart, whereby an uninterrupted awareness of the presence of the divine is to be achieved. Such practices also exist in the Christian tradition: Think of the litanies, the rosary prayer or the ‘Jesus prayer’ of Eastern Christians, especially in Hesychasm [2]. The ‘Jesus Prayer’, also called the ‘Prayer of the Heart’, consists in the steady repetition of the phrase Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἀμαρτωλόν (Greek: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me), in the rhythm of the breath.

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In his autobiography, Carl Gustav Jung tells us about meeting Ochwiä Biano (‘Mountain Lake’), the spiritual chief of the Taos pueblos, during his trip to America in 1924. Ochwiä Biano told him, “See how cruel the white people look. Their lips are thin, their noses pointed, their faces are furrowed and distorted by wrinkles, their eyes have a fixed gaze, they are always looking for something. What are they looking for? The whites always want something, they are always restless. We don’t know what they want. We don’t understand them. We think they are crazy”. Jung asked him why he claimed such a thing. And the Indian replied: “They say they think with their heads. […] We think here”, he said, pointing to his heart. Jung sank “into long contemplation” [3]

The Grail stories played a major role for Carl Gustav Jung from his youth. He read them for the first time when he was fifteen years old. The strong impression of this reading was never to leave him. In his later years, he admitted that only consideration for the work of his wife Emma – who saw researching this subject as her life’s work – had prevented him from including the Grail legend in his study of alchemy.[4] Emma Jung’s book, Die Gralslegende in psychologischer Sicht (The Grail Legend in Psychological Perspective), was completed and published posthumously thanks to the work of Marie-Louise von Franz.[5]

Parsifal, noble as an eagle, is a solar hero. His story is an initiatic path, a gradual rediscovery of the hidden meaning of things, of the self.

Parsifal kills the swan. In him, the urge to kill is not ‘evil’ but an animalistic-ludic (playful) instinct. This is how cats and other predators act, for example: they attack what moves. Parsifal is not afraid to admit what he has done when Gurnemanz asks him if it was he who killed the sacred swan: “Certainly! In flight I hit what flies!” he says proudly with youthful impetuosity. But then, with a series of pressing questions, Gurnemanz sets in motion a process of self-knowledge: gnoti seauton. When the dying swan’s gaze strikes Parsifal, he is so seized by it that he breaks his bow and flings the arrows away from himself. And when later Gurnemanz, after showing him the sacred meal of the Grail knights and the suffering Amfortas, asks him, “Do you know what you saw?”, Parsifal is silent and “grasps his heart convulsively and then shakes his head a little”. The heart is like a vase, an athanor, an alchemical furnace in which the ‘magnum opus’ is accomplished: suffering is transmuted into gold, into love to be radiated.

The realisation occurs through the experience – first of suffering, then of Eros (through the fragrant ‘flower-girls’ and Kundry, who tries to take on the role of his mother Herzeleide). In the dying swan’s gaze, Parsifal gets a premonition of the cosmic suffering in which – according to the Buddhist view – all beings are implicated. The erotic experience is also something tragic, something tragic-Dionysian. Pleasure and pain are mixed. The union of the masculine and the feminine is a Mysterium Tremendum.

What is central to Wagner’s ‘Bühnenweihfestspiel’ is the concept of ‘compassion’ (in the sense of Schopenhauer, according to whom only compassion can overcome egoism and lead to identification with another being). Parsifal is the ‘pure fool’: he is certainly a fool, but his foolishness is (also) purity of heart. The ultimate reality can only be perceived by the guiltless or by those who have created and cultivate emptiness (kenosis) within themselves. At the end of the individuation process, Parsifal is ‘knowing through compassion’.

Wagner’s Parsifal is a liturgical play, a drama of knowledge par excellence. Wagner’s sound, especially in the late work, is powerful, seductive, eroto-magical. It has the ability to creep deeply into the psyche in a tenderly poisonous way. The power of this music is incomparable to any other. Wagner’s sound art has the gift of transmutation.

The goal of art, if there is one, is metamorphosis, inner transformation. And this also requires external transformation: other heavens, other earths … With Wagner, the Parsifal story and thus the Grail saga become a drama of ‘knowledge through sound’ (phonosophia). Anyone who devotes himself seriously to this work will probably be shaken and forced to re-found himself psychophysically.

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I was guided on my phonosophical path by, among others, two personalities whose names bear the initial letters G and S. The first is Giuseppe Sinopoli (1947-2001); the second is Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988). Both are buried in Rome, in the Cimitero del Verano. Both recognised music as a ‘Great Way’, a path to metaphysical knowledge: as something at once spiritual and sensual, expressive and gnostic; ephemeral and transient, music embodies a powerful ambiguity. The power of music and sound in general was already recognised in antiquity. Think of Orpheus, of Amphion, of the walls of Jericho, of Arion, of Pythagoras, of the ethos doctrine of Damon, which also plays a decisive role in Plato (see his dialogues Politeia and Nomoi), of the doctrine of effects of the Baroque, of the Romantic philosophy of music … all the way to the kymatics of Hans Jenny. There is no doubt that sounds can have an effect not only on the state of mind of humans and animals, but also on so-called ‘dead matter’: they can move stones, make small particles dance and create shapes … Music ultimately has the ability to open the heart.

But what is the heart? Purely anatomically, it is an organ that allows blood to flow throughout the body; it is also traditionally seen as a place of feeling, of mind, of emotions. But the heart is much more: it is an organ of perception. Heart does not simply mean ‘kind feelings’. It is rather a space, a cosmic resonance space: a ‘cave’, a place where – to use the ancient Indians’ words – Atman and Brahman meet. Here, at this hidden point, in the smallest, in a ‘mustard seed’, all space is generated. The Self (Atman), hidden in the heart, is the invisible web into which space is woven. Within the heart is a flame and a sound. Sound as meditating fire … (the sense of being). “We dream of journeys through the universe: is the universe not within us? We do not know the depths of our spirit. – Inward goes the mysterious path. Within us, or nowhere, is eternity with its worlds, past and future” (Novalis, Blüthenstaub, 16th fragment). The intuitions of the young Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis) are – because of their inscrutability – comparable to those of the Vedic people.

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There is a special term that cannot be found in the Vedas, nor in the Upanishads, but in the Tantric scriptures: anâhata‛. It points to the inaudible primordial sound that the Vedanticists called ‘Brahman nirguna‛. In Tantric texts, beginning with Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka, the term ‘anâhata‛ first appears (‘unstruck‛, metaphysical sound – without cause) as an antithesis to ‘âhata‛ (‘struck‛, i.e. material, audible sound).

Interestingly, ‘anâhata‛ is also the name given to the ‘heart chakra’ in the yoga tradition: there, in the occult heart space, the primordial vibration manifests – as Atman.

Not only Jean-Claude Eloy is close to these concepts (an artist who inspired me very much and to whom I dedicated my book Musica Cosmogonica – not least because one of his works is called Anâhata …), but also the already mentioned Giacinto Scelsi. The title of one of his juvenile works, Chemin du cœur, anticipates his later path as a composer. But Scelsi did not actually see himself as a ‘composer’, but as a simple ‘postman’ of the beyond. He is known for his ‘musica su una sola nota’ (music on a single note). With it, instead of ‘composing’ (cum-ponere: putting notes together), he tried to reach the heart of sound in order to manifest the cosmogonic energy contained within it. With his music, Giacinto Scelsi made journeys into the centre of sound.

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Scelsi liked to tell Zen stories. One of his favourite stories was about the louse: A young man wished to learn archery, so he went to a master. The master told him, “Yes, I can teach you archery, but first of all I want you to learn to see the heart of a louse.” “Excuse me?” asked the young man, “the heart of a louse? How is that possible?” “It is very simple,” replied the master, “you only need to stick two sticks into the ground and stretch a string between them. Then you put a louse on the string and lie down on the ground and watch it jumping back and forth.” “But how long should I do this?” the young man asked. “A very long time …” replied the master. The young man obediently did what the master asked him to do: he looked attentively at the louse, which gradually grew larger and larger in his perception. After a long observation, he suddenly saw something pulsating: the heartbeat of the louse.

For Scelsi, this story was meaningful in the context of his experience with sound. If one listens attentively to a single sound for a long time, it begins to grow and become larger and larger. The listener begins to feel enveloped by it as a ’round sound’ and discovers that the single note can be a whole cosmos, full of melodies, rhythms, harmonies, colours, polyphonies and abysses. Only the one who reaches the heart of sound is a true musician, Scelsi believed; otherwise, one is only a good craftsman, but not an artist. This brings to mind a phrase of Saint Francis of Assisi: “He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and with his head is a workman. But he who works with his hands, his head and his heart is an artist.”

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Giacinto Scelsi was convinced that he had been accompanied by a palm tree for thousands of years – in the course of various reincarnations. From his flat in Rome at Via di San Teodoro 8, right next to the Roman Forum, he saw in this palm tree an elective affinity, and he used to observe it intently for a long time in daily meditation. The palm tree, which like the eagle is a symbol of the sun, can also be seen as an image of sound. From its centre, which is a kind of fundamental tone, the branches with the leaves emanate, which are comparable to the overtones: They move when the wind blows.

Similar considerations are possible in the case of the structure of a sunflower with its counter-rotating spirals that interpenetrate. Alexander Lauterwasser, who continued Hans Jenny’s work in the field of kymatics, was able to develop stimulating reflections on morphogenesis, the secret of the birth of form, through his profound examination of the sound figures in water: One can “relate the left-turning and longer spiral arms to a movement going from the outside to the inside and the right-turning shorter ones to a movement going from the inside to the outside, comparable to the breathing movements, or the systole and diastole of the pulsating heart. On closer inspection, one will now inevitably realise that individual sunflower seeds are located exactly at the points where these two polar movements interpenetrate and overlap. If you now consider what a seed actually represents – namely the possibility for future aliveness – then one of the perhaps most profound secrets of aliveness reveals itself to you: Only where it is possible to integrate and harmonise these two primordial gestures – from the inside out and from the outside in – only there can something new, a future impulse find space in the world, arrive, begin to embody and unfold […]”. And Lauterwasser continues: “Should the vertebral shape of the heart perhaps be a cipher for the fact that the heart, in addition to its task of rhythmising the entire blood circulation, represents a kind of organ of perception? But for what?

Already in the embryo, pulsating oscillations are active in exactly the region where the heart will later form: at that ‘jumping point’ already described by Aristotle. This means at the same time that the pulse beat is there long before the heart, which is imagined as a mechanical ‘pump organ’, develops its effectiveness”. First the pulse, then the bodily organ.

The heartbeat corresponds to the movements of contraction and expansion of the universe. The pulse beat is the primordial sign of human life. As a foetus, one hears the continuous and loud pulsation of the maternal heart for nine months. In this sense, rhythm is the most primal element, the most archaic element of music. The pulsation continues until the moment of death.

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“Who is the Grail?” asks Parsifal. Gurnemanz replies, “That is not something that can be said”. Equations that can be considered approximations:

Grail = Self = Tao = Emptiness = Being.

Grail as the centre of the world or the centre of being, from which all things can be experienced sub specie aeternitatis, beyond the principium individuationis. The centre, however, is everywhere, as Giordano Bruno and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others, say … We carry it with us in our heart. The heart is the centre of our being. The Grail is a heart symbol, a symbol of unborn light and uncreated sound.

Grail as light and sound. As sound of the light and as the light of the inaudible sound of origin. The Grail is the place where transcendence can be experienced in immanence; the place where time becomes space and where it is possible to listen with the ‘third ear’ to the harmony of the spheres.

The search for the Grail is the search for the heart of sound, for the sound of emptiness: a sound of uncreated light: the ‘light-sound’, the ‘golden sound’….

 


[1] Phonosophy = knowledge through sound
[2] A form of spirituality developed in the Middle Ages by Orthodox Byzantine monks. The term is derived from the Greek word hesychia (ἡσυχία hēsychía), which means ‘calm’ or ‘silence’. Associated with hesychia are the ideas of serenity and inner peace. Hesychasts make the attainment and preservation of such calm the goal of intense systematic effort.
[3] Cf. Carl Gustav Jung, Erinnerungen, Träume, Gedanken (Memories, Dreams, Reflections) aufgezeichnet und hrsg. von Aniela Jaffé, Walter Verlag: Zurich and Düsseldorf 1971, p. 251.
[4] Ibid. p. 218 f.
[5] Studien aus dem C. G. Jung-Institut (Studies of the C. G. Jung Institute), Vol XII, Rascher Verlag: Zurich and Stuttgart 1960.

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Date: February 20, 2024
Author: Leopoldo Siano (Italy)
Photo: gong-Hans auf Pixabay CCO

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